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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Masehual Siuamej: Indigenous women in resistance for their livelihoods and defence of land rights

Masehual Siuamej: Indigenous women in resistance for their livelihoods and defence of land rights

Marisol (MADev14) has been profoundly affected by the way that Masehual women understand and relate to nature and envisage development in terms of freedom, respect and collectiveness.
Image above: By Fernando Sosa. Provided by Masehual Siuamej. Cuetzálan, Mexico. Asembly of the Maseh
Image above: By Fernando Sosa. Provided by Masehual Siuamej. Cuetzálan, Mexico. Asembly of the Maseh

In January 2021, Mexican government ministers rejected a law reform that would guarantee indigenous communities consultation in land grants to extractive projects. The unregulated selling of communal lands and unconsented use signify a threat to indigenous autonomy, and is a violation of their rights.

According to Tiyat Tlali Counsel, one of the movements for the defense of territory, more than 160 thousand hectares have been granted to mining companies, and at least 10 hydroelectric projects have been approved without indigenous community consultation.

The rejection of the reform represented a step back in the land rights movements from many indigenous communities that struggle to determine their land rights. Making such a controversial decision amidst the COVID-19 pandemic made the topic to be conveniently overlooked by the media, and therefore, more difficult for indigenous movements to fight back.

Nevertheless, numerous native land defence movements throughout the country appealed this law, and within two months, they won the right for further amendments. One of the movements involved in this was the Cuetzalan Integral Territorial Management Committee (COTIC for its initials in Spanish) from the highlands of the Mexican state of Puebla.

The COTIC is a grassroots organisation led mainly by women since its founding in 2011.  Women from the NGO Masehual Siuemej Monsenyolchicauani have been particularly active.

Land and territory: not just a livelihood but a symbolic and spiritual sanctuary

For the Masehual people in the Northern mountains of Puebla, land and territory are crucial for two main reasons. Firstly, it represents their main livelihood, as its crucial for their agriculture and livestock for consumption and commercialisation. Secondly, the symbolic importance of nature and its elements: water, flora and fauna, has a deep significance in their spirituality.

The indiscriminate hydroelectric and mining projects threaten the future of Masehual culture and livelihoods. For example, hydroelectric projects can dry their their rivers leaving hundreds of communities without a water supply and destroying the surrounding ecosystem.

According to Durán’, for the Masehual the land is full of symbols, affections, relations and belonging. They 'cannot exist and cannot live without the other.' Their balance with nature represents the well-being and their way of life.

In Masehual culture, nature provides all what they need to live their Yeknemilis or Buen Vivir (Good life). The land is not owned, but it is instead part of their identity and being. They sustain an interdependent relationship where nature cares for them, and they care for nature reciprocally.

One of the Masehual's symbols of nature is of women as the guardians of water. This is not by chance as women are leaders of land rights movements in the area. The means by which they  do this have to do with deep processes of collective organisation and cooperative livelihoods.

Masehual women’s cooperative: School of democracy and political agency

Masehual Siuamej Monsenyolchicauani comes from the Nahua language and means 'women that support each other.’ They are an organisation led by-and-for women that started in 1985 to promote collective livelihoods. Masehual culture had deeply ingrained masculine hierarchies of power which segregated women to the domestic space.

The Masehual women decided to organize themselves through democratic processes through assemblies, where the voice of each member could be heard equally. They also built a cooperative of handicrafts and an ecotourism hotel that promotes preserving their ecosystem and curative plants.

In their words, they work for 'a dignified life for ourselves and our families' based on economic opportunities that are respectful to their environment.

Their assemblies and democratic practices result in deeper processes for their pathways of economic and social empowerment, which has led them to raise their voices in the local political sphere.

Moreover, through their own processes of empowerment, the Masehual women have gained not only gender equity and self-determination in their families but also representation and agency in the public matters of their town.

Since co-founding the COTIC, they have led political processes that have stopped energy and extractive projects that would have destroyed their ecosystem.

Masehual Siuamej resilience amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic reached Mexico in March 2020, Masehual Siuamej brought their creative resources together to survive. In an interview held with Doña Rufi, one of the founders of the NGO for this blog, she mentions these have been difficult times, but collectively the Masehual Siuamej have managed to thrive.

She mentions that the worst impact of the pandemic has been the cancellation of the cooperative's assemblies because of safety measures. As a result, the almost 100 female members of the cooperative have not seen each other in person since March 2020.

Economic hardship arose and the hotel and the handicraft store ceased for more than seven consecutive months during the lockdown in 2020. Therefore, the NGO decide collectively to use the cooperative’s savings to pay full wages to employees during this time.

Also, the Masehual were creative and decided to design embroidered facemasks and opened an online store. (See photo gallery above).

During the lockdown, the hotel took the opportunity to build solar-powered boilers and rainwater harvesting systems.

In late 2020, the hotel was reopened to 30% capacity, and the team rotas were devised so that all cooperative members could contribute and at the same time, all could be cared for.

Finally, the COTIC meetings for land rights went online. For this, the Masehual women, regardless of their age, broke technology barriers to adapt and keep participating in civic life.

Against all the odds of a global health emergency, the difficulties of a limited government and health system in Mexico, and an economic crisis, Masehual Siuamej women have once more demonstrated how collective efforts and grassroots resilience can transform power relations at any level and make a difference in the lives of local communities.

Further Information

You can follow and find out more about the Hotel run by the Masehual Siuamej women on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and find out more about their embroidery and handicrafts on Facebook and Instagram.

Scroll down for more photos in the gallery below the comments


This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2020-2021 Spring Term.

Photo gallery

To view this photo gallery

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